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by World Music Network March 24, 2011


The Music of Nigeria

Africa’s Stumbling Giant

Nigeria is unrivalled in Africa in terms of cultural output. Yet, except for a few internationally known African pop icons (Fela Kuti, Sunny Ade and Femi Kuti), the country’s artistry remains a mystery to all but the most ardently adventurous listeners.

Nigerian Uniqueness

Nigerian’s internal population (140 million citizens and growing) is audience enough to sustain most artistic endeavours, and most artists tailor their music to a domestic audience. Nigeria is an economic giant in Africa, with oil, industrial and trade revenues in multiples of billions. Nigerian’s cultural heritage is a great source of pride, and Nigerians also have a great sense of the intrinsic wealth of their nation.

Nigerian Peoples

Nigeria is broadly conceived of in four major regions in alignment with the major ethnic groups: in the north are the Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri; in the southwest, the Yoruba and their numerous subgroups; in the southwest, the Igbo people; and in the Niger Delta area, incredibly reorganized as a fourth distinct and very diverse region, the Kalabari, Ikwerre, Okrika, Ndoni and Abua peoples, to name a few.


The Yoruba people are well known for their elaborate drumming traditions, although the heart of their music is the spoken language. Two common percussion ensembles found widely today are the dundun and the bata. Other Yoruba percussion instruments include bembe, koso, abinti, agogo, shekere and sakara. The Igbo perform in a great array of musical styles, but one commonly found instrument is the ikoro, or slit gong. Another common and influential Igbo instrument is the udu pot drum. In the North of Nigeria one finds string instruments such as the three-stringed lute called molo, and the boat-shaped lute called kontigi by the Hausa.

Other instruments found in the northern region are Jew’s harps, flute, reed instruments, the kakaki (a bass trumpet over ten feet long) and the kananngo drum. In Nigeria’s diverse middle states, there are rich traditions of balafon or xylophone. In the delta region, they have lush-sounding vocal music with the accompaniment of large and deeply resonant drums.


By the early 1920s juju music had emerged as a Yoruba popular genre. Tunde King and Irewolede Denge became some of Nigeria’s first musical stars. By the 1950s popular music was flourishing in a wide range of styles, with Tunde Nightingale, J.O. Araba and C.A. Balogun being the most prominent juju artists. Later in the decade, I.K. Dairo began his rise to stardom, becoming Nigeria’s first international musical star, paving the way for hundreds of other juju bands. In the 1970s, younger upstarts Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade began to achieve popularity.

In 1992, Shina Peters rose to prominence on a wave of “Shinamania” with his Afrojuju style. However, by 2000, juju music had ceased to be Nigeria’s favourite pop genre.

Highlife Nigeria Style

In the 1950s highlife was the dancehall music of Africa’s emerging elites, whose new, modern “high” style of living inspired the name, with stars such as Bobby Benson, Cardinal Rex Lawson and Dr Victor Olaiya in constant demand. Highlife was performed and enjoyed across ethnic lines, taking its inspiration from Ghanian style and American jazz and fuelled largely by brass and wind instruments. After the civil war, by the mid-1970s, a whole new crop of highlife musicians emerged, such as the popular band The Nkengas, actually the defecting band of Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, whose Live in London is still considered one of the great recordings of Nigerian highlife.

Today, highlife in Nigeria primarily enjoys the status of classical pop music, yet several prominent highlife artists remain on the scene, such as Onyeka Onwenu and Sunny Neji.

Traditional Pop and Apala

Nigerian “traditional pop” is music based directly on a traditional music style but performed in a popular format or by a musician seeking to achieve notoriety. By far the most dramatic kind is Yoruba apala, a traditional form of social music from the Ijebu region of Yorubaland in what is today Ogun state. In the 1960s, two apala singers, Haruna Ishola and Ayinla Omowura, became major pop figures in Nigeria. Sadly, both singers died in the 1970s.

In 2003, Museliu Ishola, Haruna’s son burst into the national music scene.

Fuji Fever

Fuji music is based in the Islamic communities of Nigeria’s Yoruba people. In the mid-twentieth century, a new tradition, ajisaari or were, evolved. A young man named Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, after winning a competition among Lago’s ajisaari singers, gave the music the name fuji. A competitor quickly arose to galvanize fuji fans into two camps, Kollington Ayinla (“Baba Alatika”). By the late 1990s, fuji was beginning to overtake juju as Nigeria’s number-one popular music. Another singer has emerged to become the clear leader and innovator, Wasiu Ayinde Barrister, known as KWAM (King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall). 


Waka is vocally originated music backed by a percussion orchestra of Yoruba talking drums and hand percussion. Waka’s stars are women. Like fuji, waka’s artists tend to be Muslims, and its audience largely the Muslim middle and lower classes. The undisputed queen of waka is Queen Salawa Abeni, whose career spans almost three decades.

Fela Kuti and Afro-beat

Probably the best-known icon and the largest musical personality from Nigeria was Fela Anikulapo Kuti. In the late 1960s, Lagos was a focus of musical experimentation, with jazz, funk and African music vying to dominate a booming social scene. Fela began to evolve his music, combining a love of jazz, funk, traditional music and ritual with his social activism, black consciousness and outrageous showmanship to produce a unique style which he dubbed Afro-beat.

Nigeria now boasts dozens of Afro-beat outfits, with straight Afro-beat, Afro-beat-rap, Afro-jazz, Afro soul and more. In the realm of pure Afro-beat, Femi (Fela’s older son) leads the pack, both at home and abroad.

Praise Singing the Big Boss

In the past two decades, as the Nigerian economy has gone from bad to worse, the attendance at formal religious ceremonies has swelled dramatically. Over the 1970s, 80s and 90s, icons such as I.K. Dairo, Sunny Okosun and Ebenezer Obey traded in their guitars for sceptres and became leaders in their own church movements.  By the 1980s, when Timi Osukoya had his hit record Divine Assurance, religious music had begun to emerge as popular music. Gospel artists are currently enjoying support and opportunities that other artists can only dream of.

Reggae, Hip-Hop, Rap and Beyond

Reggae has been an important genre in Nigeria ever since Bob Marley conquered the world on the 1970s.  Majek Fashek’s 1990 album Prisoner of Conscience and 1991’s Spirit of Love received rave reviews at home and abroad.

Hip-hop began to gain popularity in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. The initial success of The Remedies was probably the catalyst. Formed in 1997, the group released two songs, “Judile” and “Sakomo”, which became overnight hits in Nigeria.

Much of the early Nigerian rap was raga-style with a heavy Jamaican influence. While contemporary Nigerian rap is obviously aimed at an international audience, it is also clearly rooted in Nigerian culture.

Some of Nigeria’s best talents have forged new styles and genres which don’t fit any category or norm. A classic example of this is Prince Nico Mbarga whose “Sweet Mother” (1976) is one of the biggest hits in African music history. Today, new artists such as Daddy Showkey, Baba Fryo or Lágbájá are evolving their own individual sounds in urban Nigeria.

Future Grooves

The lack of a music industry poses a real challenge for some of the nation’s budding talents. If, one day, Nigeria truly begins the long and challenging resurrection so many hope for, the Nigeria will once again be among the giants of the world in musical and overall artistic achievement.